The flirty text doesn’t come naturally to me, let alone a love letter, so bear with me: this is almost certainly a case of the blind leading the blind.
In today’s world of Tinder, Zoom and Snapchat, love letters feel like an anachronism. Why inconvenience oneself with the tedious task of writing a letter when instant messenger is at your fingertips? What’s more, there’s nothing more likely to foil your ploy of nonchalance than putting pen to paper, so it’s surely best to leave quill and parchment to Austen and her wealth of embarrassingly, earnestly ardent characters? Alas, no!
The truth is, that the nostalgia for letter writing bubbles under the surface. Our hands itch for the tangible comfort of paper, the considered commitment of words, and etiquette of letter-writing which the virtual world cannot provide. Films like Letters to Juliet, P.S. I Love You and Dear John might be cliched, yes they might make you cringe, but they also make manifest the lingering love of written romance.
Besides, Letters to Juliet isn’t all mawkish fantasy: the “secretaries of Juliet” are a real group of women in Verona. Consisting of 45 members, the Club di Giulietta is dedicated to answering the 10,000 letters written each year to the Shakespearean heroine from across the globe. Whilst Juliet’s house has installed computers so that visitors can email her instead of writing, these account for fewer than 10% of the messages that end up in her secretaries’ offices.
It’s an expensive enterprise but one in which its funders, the city’s council, and a private benefactor, clearly see a value. While attracting tourists to the city is likely a significant motivation, this project also seems to be about cherishing the magic of the handwritten. I’m fascinated by the coexistence of anonymity and physical intimacy which binds this operation; by the impulse of thousands of people to send something they’ve touched physically into the ether, to a fictitious character, and wait for something touched by another to be returned – like two hands stretching out over a gulf, thousands of miles apart.
A favourite lecturer of mine once referenced the Found website. The site collects material which has gone adrift: love letters, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles and anything else that provides a glimpse into someone else’s life. In a moment of procrastination, I began leafing through the online collection. An hour later, I had plunged deep down into the epistolary rabbit hole, inexplicably invested in these written fragments offering a brief but striking window into a total stranger’s life.
“Dear Cailea”, begins one letter scribbled on a scrap of paper, “I love you so much, not the typical kind of love, but the beautiful 1920s kind of love.” Christ, I think, this stuff is poetry! And then I stumble on scrawls on the back of an envelope: “I’m done. It’s over! You can have that little skank. You lying piece of shit. Fuck you. Connie x”. So, maybe the pen isn’t simply an instrument of sweet nothings, for ‘beautiful 1920s kind of love’; it can wield serious vitriol and frustration, as Connie’s epistle makes clear. But while I’d sooner be Cailea than Connie’s recipient, I’m drawn towards the sincerity of the handwritten sentiment, be that loving or loathing, and the fragility of the material article, its capacity to be lost and found in life’s flotsam and jetsam, rather than the text which loiters in cyberspace.
This longing for the physical was so keenly felt by American blogger Hannah Brencher that she founded “More Love Letters.” Living in New York post-university, Brencher used love letters as a coping mechanism during a period of depression. She wrote dozens of love letters and scattered them around the city for strangers to find, blogging the progress of her project. Now, she runs a global organisation which writes love letters for strangers – for those, as Brencher describes, who “have never been loved on paper before’: the “paperless”generation. Brencher, like Juliet’s secretaries, champions the therapeutic experience of writing as well as receiving letters.
The handwritten has such a personal charm that when I receive a letter, it’s like being greeted with a scribbled thumbprint. I glory in all its unique splendour and unfettered spontaneity: the inky blots, the smudged blunders, the last minute postscript. My current read, Love in the Time of Cholera, has therefore been a delight to read. Beginning following a cholera pandemic, Florentino and Fermina’s romance opens with a single letter, and plays out through this medium. I can think of no better guide to the art of letter writing during a pandemic than this novel and so, I present to you the lessons I have gleaned from Márquez:
- Florentino’s mother discourages him from taking Fermina by surprise with a written declaration of love before he’s established a rapport. Don’t write out of the blue.
- Florentino’s pen somewhat runs away with itself and he initially produces a letter which is more than 60 pages long. Keep it short and sweet!
- Hand delivering your letter during lockdown might land you in hot water but it certainly gives the gesture a flourish. Pick a memorable location – almond trees are preferable.
Oh, and before I forget, P.S. I love you x